Have you heard about the Yazidi people? This is a question I've been asking a lot over the last couple of months - to family, friends, work colleagues, waiters asking me what I'm working on as I sit huddled in cafés, stealing every spare moment I have in order to email MPs, campaigners, anyone to help in my quest to raise awareness and come up with a plan. So far the answer, pretty unanimously, has been "no". At first, I would relish this opportunity to educate and inform people on who the Yazidis are and what they are currently facing but recently I have been getting more and more frustrated by vacant looks and confused head shakes - how do you not know? Why have you not heard?
Yazidism is one of the world's oldest religions combining elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. It's a peaceful faith which rejects the idea of sin and the devil yet Yazidis are repeatedly targeted by extremists for the seemingly complex nature of their faith and are considered infidels and 'people without book'.
I came across a petition of British-Yazidi campaigner, Rozin Khalil after I attended Women of the World festival in March this year. Having heard harrowing stories of what Yazidi women and girIs are going through at the hands of so-called 'ISIS' - mothers and children being separated as ritual, girls as young as 7 being raped 10 times a day as part of ISIS 'law', women and girls being blind-folded, chained and sold at market like cattle, burning alive those who refuse or resist rape - I was determined to do something to help, so I contacted her in the hope that she could speak at a parliamentary meeting I've organised with my local MP. Rozin's petition calls on the UK government to provide support to the women and girls kidnapped by ISIS. So far the petition has gained over 270,000 signatures but our government is still yet to act.
Everyone has heard of ISIS by now, so why then has one of their most brutal atrocities gained such little public attention? As stated by Nadia Murad, Yazidi survivor and recently appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking - "the world remained silent".
In the summer of 2014, ISIS entered one of the largest communities of Yazidis - the peaceful, holy town of Sinjar, Northern Iraq. What followed was a chilling ultimatum: convert or die. Families were separated. Men and boys over 12 who refused to convert were killed. Women deemed too old or not attractive enough to be sold into sexual slavery were also killed. Young boys were kidnapped to be forcibly trained as jihadi fighters. And the women and girls, considered 'spoils of war', were enslaved, systematically raped, beaten, and sold at slave markets (virgins fetch the highest price).
What ISIS has done and is still doing to these women and girls is unimaginable. I sometimes wonder whether one of the reasons people turn away from this issue is because the horror is just too much. It's certainly too much for the many who have committed suicide to escape the humiliation, pain and daily torture. Many have managed to escape with the help of smuggling networks. 6000 Yazidis were kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 and a UN report has confirmed that over half are still being held captive. Most are believed to be held in Mosul and now with coalition forces closing in on the city there are worries that the women and girls are being taken further underground and being used as human shields.
Nearly two years after the Sinjar massacre the UN finally confirmed, in June 2016, that genocide had been committed against the Yazidi people and called for international support for survivors and the mass displacement of the community. Currently only Germany has provided substantial, specialist support in the form of a Special Quota Project in which it rescued and provided safe housing and medical care to over 1000 of the most vulnerable Yazidi women and girl survivors of sexual slavery. According to the International Office of Migration there are more than 1.3 million internally displaced people (IDP) from locations in Northern Iraq targeted by ISIS. Many of the most vulnerable are now living in unsafe camps, unable or too scared to return to their homes and in desperate need of medical attention. This is a group that should be, without question, prioritised for resettlement in our country.
Campaigners have so far hit a brick wall with the government due to the fact that Yazidis living in camps in Northern Iraq are considered IDP and not refugees (despite being homeless with the threat of attack still a constant source of stress and unable to return without a promise of guaranteed protection). They cannot, as policy currently stands, register with UNHCR and be considered for refugee status within the UK. There are however 30,000 Yazidis in camps across Turkey, Greece and Syria who are eligible to register with the UNHCR but are being told they have to wait for as long as seven years before their application will be considered. This is simply not good enough.
On Tuesday 25th October my local MP, Stella Creasy, will be hosting a meeting to discuss what the UK government can and must do in order to support women and girls who have escaped and are in ill physical and mental health. Speaking at this meeting will be British-Yazidi campaigner, Rozin Khalil; prominent campaigner and founder of British charity Road to Peace, Sally Becker; journalist, Vanessa Altin; and director producer of Channel 4's Escape From ISIS, Edward Watts.
We are hoping that as many MPs as possible will attend and help us plan substantial support for this desperate situation. The UK has a legal and moral obligation to help victims of genocide and femicide. We must keep to our promise of providing greater support and protection to survivors of sexual violence and offer asylum to the most vulnerable refugees who need our help. We know that the UK is already playing a lead role in coalition to defeat ISIS. We also know that there are apparently two trauma centres being funded by the UK in Iraq but no further detail has been provided and there seems to be no evidence that UK aid is reaching those who need it most.
Yazidis are a peaceful community yet have endured centuries of discrimination, persecution and violence. 2014's genocide is said to be the 74th genocide of the Yazidis by extremists. We can't let the silence around this issue continue any longer.